You sat there in the loneliness of your Charleston home, wondering how the magnificent secession could have gone so wrong in four short years. That day at Fort Moultrie on the north side of the harbor seemed like only yesterday. How many pamphlets had you written and how many speeches had you given to bring about that moment?
“Mr. Ruffin,” Gen. Beauregard asked, “would you do us the honor of firing the first cannon shot on Fort Sumter?”
“I would be very pleased to do so,” you replied. Turning to the crowd standing on the Moultrie battlements you added, “For the glory of my newly independent state of South Carolina!”
The crowds roared, you smiled and wind blew through your long silver hair. At age 67, you knew your years left on this Earth were limited, but at least you had the satisfaction of living each one of them in a land free of damn Yankees. Southerners were secure in their God-given rights to own slaves and to operate their farms according to their own dictates and not at the whim of a despotic federal government.
You traveled to Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, to witness the hanging of that madman John Brown. You confiscated pikes that Brown had intended on handing out to rebellious slaves to use on innocent Southern planters. You sent those pikes to prominent Virginia farmers as proof of the true intention of Yankee barbarians, to unleash vicious Negro retribution upon godly families in the South.
After the surrender of Fort Sumter, you followed the Army of Northern Virginia from town to town. You had the splendid privilege of firing canon upon the Yankee aggressors at such notable battles as Bull Run. Smiling to yourself, you remembered how the soldiers treated you as a beloved grandfather, keeping you from the dangers of the front lines as much as possible. At night, you walked from tent to tent in camp and by lantern light spoke bold words to the young men of their new homeland, encouraging them on to a sure victory because the hand of divine providence guided them.
The silence of your Charleston home enveloped you like a stifling casket as you recalled your frustration and sadness upon hearing news from Gettysburg. By this point, your health no longer permitted you to follow the army, forcing a return to home, now as empty as your expectations. No one spoke in your presence of growing fears that the South might fall. They knew you would issue a vicious rebuke to their lack of confidence in Gen. Lee, President Davis and the rest of the Confederate government.
“Oh ye of little faith,” you intoned many times to no avail.
Victories lessened and the ominous tramping of Yankee soldiers seemed to be everywhere. Now in the spring of 1865 the inevitable was upon the good people of the Confederacy, and each had to decide his own fate.
You wrapped yourself in a Confederate flag and placed the end of the rifle barrel under your chin. Briefly praising God for the blessing of long arms, you pulled the trigger.
Bob and Madge sat in the Mexican restaurant, sharing a large plate of nachos, and each sipped on their margaritas.
“Remember the time Susie smeared the queso in her hair?” Madge laughed as she crunched on a tortilla chip.
“Yeah, when the waitress came up, we asked what we should do,” Bob replied, “She replied, ‘I don’t know. If I had a camera I’d take a picture of it.”
They both laughed and took another big slurp of the margaritas.
“That’s one thing we did wrong with Joey.” Madge scooped up some guacamole. “We always bought him a hamburger, no matter where we ate. Remember when we got in late at the beach and went to the restaurant where the waitress walked up with the wrong order and Joey started screaming when she walked away.”
“We shouldn’t have let him go hungry like that.”
“And then the next night we went to the hamburger joint late and he toddled down the aisle as fast as his two little legs would carry him. And the line was backed up.”
“They should have taken that little boy away from us, the way we starved him.” Bob stuffed another nacho in his mouth.
“No wonder he ate all the chocolate doughnuts in the back seat.” After Madge took another swig of her margarita she twisted her face. “But that was another trip, wasn’t it?” She shook her head and pushed her salt-rimmed glass over to Bob. “You better have the rest of my margarita. I’m not making any sense.”
Bob was about to take her glass when he pointed to the last nacho on the platter. “Do you want that?”
“No, you can have it.”
“I don’t want it.”
“Then why did you ask if I wanted it?”
“I was just making conversation.”
“I don’t think you need the rest of the margarita.” She pulled the glass back across the table.
“If that’s the way you feel about it….” Bob reached for the last nacho and ate it.
Madge started laughing, her face turned red and she coughed.
“Okay, that settles it,” Bob resolved. “We must never leave each other. No one else could ever understand us.”
Back when I was a kid (I swore I would never use that phrase; oh well, it’s too late now) the best place to get your unsubstantiated rumors was the church bulletin.
Invariably the secretary would end up with a couple of lines at the bottom of the last page, and to fill it she would dig out a letter from her cousin in Waxahachie who shared a story on the back page of her church’s bulletin. What a shock. Proctor & Gamble, the company that made all those wonderful cleaning products, had been taken over by witches. The proof was on each bottle—a crescent moon and stars. The Waxahachie cousin issued a call to boycott all P&G merchandise.
Soon thereafter a TV news reporter contacted the company about the claim that was sweeping the country and the public relations officer explain the corporate log went back to the crescent moon and stars on an outhouse, where invariably all need for cleaning products originated. When the news team contacted each church which printed the rumor, it cited another church which in turned cited yet another church or a church member’s trusted manicurist at the corner beauty shop which went out of business six months ago and no one had seen any of the former employees since then.
After a while most church secretaries stopped believing letters from distant cousins who lived in remote spots in the Great Plains, and Proctor & Gamble didn’t have to defend itself against charges of witchcraft.
Now in the modern technological age the church bulletin has been replaced by the Internet as the best source for rumors. Hardly a day goes by that a new scandal is not revealed through an e-mail from that same obnoxious cousin from Waxahachie or the cyber back fence called Facebook. The latest one involves public schools and the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Did you know that children no longer say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning for fear of offending somebody? I have to admit I’m getting pretty old and even my children have been out of school for more than ten years now. What do I know?
As any patriotic American would do, I sent an e-mail to a teacher I know in the local school system and asked if there was even an outside chance that this allegation might be true.
Every morning, she reassured me, and they keep in the part about one nation under God. Not only is she a teacher, but her husband is a teacher in an adjoining county. They have maintained the same mailing address for more than five years and have relatives who will verify their employment.
Perhaps this compulsion in the common psyche to be outraged about something and to organize a protest about it comes through genetic mutation. Many of our relatives came here from Europe where their native countries outraged them. After they got here they missed the adrenaline rush of outrage—like eating a Snickers bar every day. They’re filled with nuts, nougat, caramel and chocolate and so nice to sink your teeth into.
Now what was it that was outraging me? Oh yes, rumors on the Internet. I want my friends and neighbors to join with me to find out who’s really behind this conspiracy. Of course after we defeat this menace, there will be another one next week. Just like a Snickers, it will be filled with nuts.
Originally published as a guest column in the Tampa Bay Times Hernando section.
Everyone told me the best place to make out with your girlfriend was on Radio Hill Road.
“You got to see the lights of downtown from Radio Hill Road.” Use that line to persuade her. After about a minute and a half you slip your arm around her shoulder. This action should cause her to look from the lights and smile at you. Then go in for the kiss.
I knew the radio station was on Radio Hill Road but not much else; if you didn’t want to be on the radio, why bother to go out there? At 16-years-old, I had a high squeaky voice, and when I was nervous I tended to get loud. That pretty much ruled out the possibility of me becoming a DJ. So, the night before my big date, I drove out there to familiarize myself with the best place to park. No lie, the view impressed me for a small town in Texas. I even practiced lowering my voice. That sounded creepy so I ditched the idea. Only a few second later, however, I saw a bright object in the sky, lingering over downtown. At first I dismissed it as an airplane, but this body had no extra blinking colored lights and seemed to linger before turning sharply and shooting directly over my car at a speed unattainable by any ordinary airliner.
Had I just encountered a space ship from another planet? Here I sat all alone on Radio Hill Road, and little green men knew it. I was ripe for the picking, just a laser beam away from being transported up for some exploratory surgery. Fumbling with my keys, I finally started my car and started down the hill when I passed a pair of headlights come in the opposite direction.
“Ahh!!” I screamed like a little girl. No. A little girl could not be that loud.
“What the hell’s wrong with you, kid?”
This teen-aged boy’s eyes widened, startled by my outburst. The girl sitting next to him began giggling. I felt bad that I had broken their mood. No necking for them tonight. Not only was I afraid of what I had seen in the sky, I also feared the story of my scream would be all over school on Monday morning. At the intersection of Radio Hill Road and the county highway heading back toward town, I stopped to gain my composure. I could never tell anyone about this. Everyone in school thought I was weird enough already without this new incident. Maybe the couple in the other car didn’t recognize me. After all, it was dark.
Tap, tap. A noise drew my attention to the car window. A little green man snapped his long skinny fingers which caused my window all by itself. This was it, I thought. I was the object of an alien’s next science experiment. Maybe it was all for the best. My social life at high school was over.
“Pardon me, young human.” A surprisingly deep voice came from a slit in the green head. “I didn’t mean to make you scream. Could you please direct me to the nearest United States of America Air Force Base? I’m meeting with your leader tomorrow morning, and I’m lost.”
I watch this show on cable television about a woman from Long Island who can see ghosts hanging around people.
It’s funny the way her face scrunches up when she’s out in public somewhere. It’s like she’s going to explode if she doesn’t go up to a person and tell them a ghost is trying to tell them something. She’s usually right on the information, and the person seems grateful.
I always thought I didn’t need to hear from anyone from the other side. I did all the talking I needed to do before they died. But in the recent political atmosphere I have started wishing I could ask my mother one last question.
She used to tell me when I was a kid, “Always remember, you’re Grady Cowling’s son.”
By her tone of voice and the look on her face I got the idea that wasn’t a compliment to my father or me.
Let me explain. When I was in the second grade I wanted to have a birthday party and invite this one particular boy in my class who had been nice to me that year. The only problem was that he was the son of the local banker. I thought my mother’s eyes were going to pop out of her head.
“Grady! Did you hear who your son wants to bring to our house? The banker’s son!”
She told me in no uncertain terms that we could not afford to throw the kind of party that the banker’s son would expect to attend, so I had to tell him that I had changed my plans and he was not invited. I tried to explain it to him but he never spoke to me again, for the next ten years of school.
The lesson I took from this experience was that the banker’s son was in one class of people, and I was in another class. He was to know his place, and I was to know my place. And that’s just the way life is.
My father sold Royal Crown Cola to the grocery stores, restaurants and service stations around town. He got up early and worked late. In the Texas summers when I grew up, he would sweat through his uniform by eight o’clock in the morning and stayed wet all day. On the other hand, the banker wore a suit, worked in an air-conditioned building and had what was known as banker’s hours. And he made lots of money. My father didn’t make a lot of money. Maybe if he sold Coca Cola he would have made more.
I have to admit I may have misinterpreted what my mother meant. My father was hard-working, had no debts and never beat her or us kids. If the neighbors were sick he would mow their yard without saying anything. Maybe that’s what she wanted me to remember.
I’d have a psychic contact my dad for his opinion about this stuff, but he never talked much anyway.
Originally published as a guest column in the Tampa Bay Times Hernando section.
Anyone who has been to one of my storytelling sessions knows I like to say, “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
Imagine my mortification recently when I discovered I didn’t make that up at all. Mark Twain did.
This is not the only instance when I think I’m clever enough to create a snappy turn of phrase. For example, I also tell people, “Don’t let facts get in the way of the truth.” Not mine. Maya Angelou said it first.
I’m not the only person to make this mistake. Of all people Helen Keller got caught writing a poem that had already been written. It’s not like she was eavesdropping and decided to take the words as her own. Her conclusion was that someone recited the poem to her when she was a child. As an adult when she thought she was composing it, she was just remembering it. Needless to say, she was as humiliated as I am now with my mistake.
When you think about it, all the good axioms were created by Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin or William Shakespeare. Just who did these people think they were, hogging all the best stuff for themselves? It’s hard to get credit for anything these days.
In addition to claiming ownership of bits of wisdom, I have also embarrassed myself by misquoting these smart guys.
For example, I gave Alexander Pope credit for writing, “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a hell of heaven or a heaven of hell.” It seems Pope didn’t say that. John Milton wrote that chestnut for “Paradise Lost.” Even more embarrassing was the fact that Milton had those words coming out of the mouth of the devil himself. So this sentence is not meant as words to live by, but as words of encouragement to the folks already living in hell.
Speaking of Alexander Pope, I also recently discovered that I had been misquoting one of his actual sayings most of my life. I thought the expression was “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” He actually said, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” It seems most words coming out of my mouth are dangerous things.
I shouldn’t be let out of the house without of a copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations under my arm. I can take solace in the fact that all those guys are dead so if I take credit and/or misquote them it’s not a big deal. What they can’t know won’t hurt them. Of course, I do have to be careful about Maya Angelou. She’s still alive and could come after me. She seems like such a nice person on television that I can’t imagine that she would take me to task too harshly.
Another way to look at my misappropriation of quotations is to acknowledge that it is really good for me. After all, who can be impressed with something an old guy in Central Florida says? Who’s he to think he’s so smart? But if they know I am quoting the best writers who ever lived, then they can think, “Wow, he’s spent a lot of time studying literature. He must know a lot.”
At least that’s my defense right now. Maybe I’ll think of a better excuse later. After all, tomorrow is another day.
Darn it, I did it again.